EMD "SD38" Locomotives

Last revised: March 11, 2023

By: Adam Burns

The SD38 series included the original model and later variants including the SD38AC, SD38-2, SD39, and SDL39. The models utilized General Motors' latest prime mover at the time, the model 645, but overall proved to be relatively unsuccessful. Between the SD38 and its variants, including those built for foreign systems, just a little more than 200 examples were manufactured. 

However, they were ruggedly built locomotives meant for use in heavy-haul, drag service and many units remain in regular freight service for years.

None are currently known to be preserved with a museum or in operation on an excursion train. However, several remain in operation with both large and small railroads, from Class Is to shortlines.


Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range SD38AC #207 is seen here in Proctor, Minnesota during May of 1988. Warren Calloway photo.


The SD38 began production in the spring of 1967, the first six-axle model to feature GM's 16-cylinder model 645E3 prime mover.

A somewhat lightly powered C-C design, the SD38 was rated at only 2,000 horsepower but could produce a continuous tractive effort rating of over 82,000 pounds (and 90,000 starting) using GM's D77 traction motors.

This made the locomotive ideal for heavy drag service, particularly in the movement of commodities such as coal and ore.

As such, many buyers of the locomotive moved this type of freight like the Bessemer & Lake Erie, Penn Central, Southern Pacific, Chicago & Illinois Midland, Southern Pacific, and others (lines like the B&LE purchased nearly every variant of the model).

The SD38 was built through the fall of 1971 with only seven railroads purchasing the model, mostly smaller lines or industrial operations (the Penn Central bought the most, 35, numbered 6925-6959).

Ultimately, only 53 SD38s were sold to US railroads. Other lines to purchase the original SD38 included the B&LE (3, numbered 861-863), Detroit, Toledo & Ironton (five, numbered 250-254), Elgin, Joliet & Eastern (6, numbered 650-655), Kaiser Bauxite (4, numbered 5101-5104), and McCloud River Railroad (3, numbered 36-38). Also, Orinoco Mining of Venezuela bought 7, numbered 1021–1027.

However, in 1972 EMD released a variant, the SD38-2 which mostly included upgraded components and the latest computer systems to make the locomotive more efficient (known as the "Dash 2" line the builder  cataloged several models in the series the most popular of which was the SD40-2).

The Yankeetown Dock Corporation acquired a few SD38-2's to handle coal tonnage. Here, #20 readies to take empties back to the mines at Yankeetown, Indiana on July 26, 1980. Doug Kroll photo.

The model looked almost identical to the SD40-2 with its long front and aft "porches" which gave the locomotive a length of over 68-feet, three feet longer than the SD38.

It sold a bit better with 81 purchased by US railroads and industries including; BC Hydro (3, numbered 382-384), B&LE (13, numbered 870-879, 890-892), C&IM (6, numbered 70-75), Chicago & North Western (10, numbered 6650-6659), Missabe (5, numbered 209-213), EJ&E (13, numbered 656-668), Louisville & Nashville (5, numbered 4500-4504), McCloud #39, Northern Alberta Railway (4, numbered 401-404), Reserve Mining (9, numbered 1237-1245), Frisco (4, numbered 296-299), SP (6, numbered 2971-2976), U.S. Steel #1, Yankeetown Dock (3, numbered 20-22). 

Data Sheet and Specifications

Entered Production5/1967 (Bessemer & Lake Erie #861-863)
Years Produced (SD38)5/1967 - 7/1971
Years Produced (SD38-2)11/1972 - 6/1979
Years Produced (SD38AC)6/1971 - 7/1971
Years Produced (SD39)8/1968 - 4/1970
Years Produced (SDL39)3/1969 - 11/1972
Engine BuilderGM
Horsepower (SD39)2300
Cylinders (SD39)12
Length65' 8"
Length (SD39)65' 9"
Length (SDP38, SD38-2)68' 10"
Height (Top Of Rail To Top Of Cab)15' 5 ½"
Width10' 4"
Weight360,000 Lbs
Weight (SDL39)250,000 Lbs
Fuel Capacity3200 Gallons
Fuel Capacity (SDL39)1700 Gallons
Air CompressorGardner-Denver
Air Compressor ModelWBO
Air Brake ManufacturerWestinghouse
Air Brake Schedule26L
Truck TypeHT-C
Truck Wheelbase13' 7"
Wheel Size40"
Traction MotorsD77 (6), GM
Primary GeneratorD32, GM
Primary Generator (SD38-2)AR10, GM
Auxiliary GeneratorDelco (A8102)
Steam Generator (SDP38)Vapor-Clarkson (model AR4125)
MU (Multiple-Unit)Yes
Dynamic BrakesYes
Gear Ratio59:15
Tractive Effort (Starting)90,000 Lbs at 25%
Tractive Effort (Starting)82,800 Lbs at 25% (SDL39)
Tractive Effort (Continuous)82,100 Lbs at 6.6 mph
Tractive Effort (Continuous)82,100 Lbs at 8 mph
Top Speed95 mph

Production Roster


Owner Road Number(s) Quantity Date Built
Bessemer & Lake Erie861-86331967
Detroit, Toledo & Ironton250-25451969-1971
Elgin, Joliet & Eastern650-65561970
McCloud River Railroad36-3831969
Penn Central6925-6959351970


Owner Road Number(s) Quantity Date Built
Bessemer & Lake Erie870-879, 890-892131973-1975
Chicago & Illinois Midland70-7561974
Chicago & North Western6650-6659101975
Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range209-21351975
Elgin, Joliet & Eastern656-668131974-1975
Louisville & Nashville4500-450451975
McCloud River Railroad3911974
Reserve Mining Company1237-124591978
Southern Pacific2971-297661973
St. Louis San Francisco Railway (Frisco)296-29941979
U.S. Steel Corporation111975
Yankeetown Dock Company20-2231972-1978


Owner Road Number(s) Quantity Date Built
Bessemer & Lake Erie864-86961971
Duluth, Missabe & Iron Range201-20881971


Owner Road Number(s) Quantity Date Built
Illinois Terminal2301-230661969
Minneapolis, Northfield & Southern40-4121968
Santa Fe4000-4019201969
Southern Pacific5300-5325261968-1970


Owner Road Number(s) Quantity Date Built
Milwaukee Road581-590101969-1972

McCloud River Railroad SD38 #37 switches customers at Cayton, California on May 11, 2006. This was one of the three the road purchased in 1969. The historic short line has since closed. Drew Jacksich photo.

Additionally, another seven sold to foreign operations including two to Jari Railway of Brazil and five to Orinoco Mining. Two other variants of the model was the SDP38 and SD38M.

The former was sold to the Korean National Railways, which purchased 40 and the latter to the Brazil Federal Railways, which purchased 34.

And finally, there was the SD38AC. This locomotive was all but identical to the original except for its AR10 alternator in replace of the standard General Motors model D32 generator allowing the locomotive to produce more tractive effort. Just 15 of these units were sold; six to the B&LE, eight to the Missabe, and one to BC Hydro. 

Today, you can still find SD38 and variants in operation on railroads such as the Reading & Northern, Norfolk Southern, B&LE/Canadian National, EJ&E/CN, Western Rail, Iowa Interstate, and CSX Transportation. 


  • Foster, Gerald. A Field Guide To Trains. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
  • Marre, Louis A. Diesel Locomotives: The First 50 Years, A Guide To Diesels Built Before 1972.  Milwaukee: Kalmbach Publishing Company, 1995.
  • Pinkepank, Jerry A. Diesel Spotter's Guide.  Milwaukee: Kalmbach Publishing Company, 1967.
  • Schafer, Mike. Vintage Diesel Locomotives. Osceola: MBI Publishing, 1998.
  • Solomon, Brian.  EMD Locomotives.  Minneapolis: MBI Publishing Company, 2006.
  • Solomon, Brian.  GE and EMD Locomotives:  The Illustrated History.  Minneapolis:  Voyageur Press, 2014.
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